In fact, Papa has made his cane himself in Fort Lincoln. He continues to use it even after his limp disappears—it becomes a dignifying accessory, and Jeanne calls it a “sad, homemade version” of the samurai swords his ancestors wielded in Japan. Understanding Papa’s Japanese heritage helps Jeanne understand “how Papa’s life could end at a place like Manzanar.” Although he doesn’t die during internment, he never recovers from the experience, whereas for Jeanne the camp is “like a birthplace.”
Papa’s cane is a mark of shame, showing how imprisonment has physically destroyed him; still, he manages to turn it into something that shows his dignity. Similarly, although Papa’s Japanese heritage makes him vulnerable to insult and injury in America, for him it’s always a source of pride and emotional strength.
Papa is born the oldest son in a samurai family. Once powerful and landed, by the time he comes of age Japan is rapidly industrializing and feudal clans are falling from power. As a teenager, Papa goes to military school but suddenly he drops out, borrows some money from his favorite aunt, and sets off for Hawaii. He’s a “headstrong idealist” and doesn’t want to preside over the decline of his family.
Papa’s impetuous behavior as a young man—his obsession with his own pride and the disregard for practical concerns he shows by impulsively setting out to America—prefigure his behavior as an adult man, and his influence over Jeanne as a parent.
Papa arrives in Honolulu in 1904. Walking through town, he sees a “Workers Wanted” sign on a building; thrilled that he can read the English, he decides to apply and buys a stylish new suit in preparation for his interview. When he returns to the building, he finds a group of Chinese and Japanese field hands waiting to work in the sugarcane fields. They laugh at his outfit and he rushes away, humiliated.
Papa always dreams of financial success and considers himself more suited to professional than manual employment. However, despite being somewhat vain, his strong character motivates him to work hard and gives dignity to the difficult jobs he holds for most of his life.
A few weeks later, Papa meets a lawyer from Idaho who offers to buy his passage to the states and put him up in exchange for three years’ work as a houseboy. Papa accepts, in order to avoid working in the fields like other Asian immigrants. In Idaho he works as a valet, cook, chauffer, and handyman; his employer helps him get into the University of Idaho, and he hopes to get a law degree.
Papa’s acceptance of this unusual job, rather than pursuing paths usually followed by Asian immigrants, shows his reluctance to act as part of a bloc or to be stereotyped by his race. This is a trait he passes onto Jeanne, even though he becomes more and more dependent on Japanese culture as he grows older.
However, in the meantime Papa meets Mama. She was born in Hawaii, where her father was a fieldworker. Her parents eventually settled in eastern Washington; they have high hopes that their daughter, because Japanese women are so rare in the mainland U.S., will marry very advantageously. Mama’s parents promise her to the son of a wealthy Japanese farmer.
Mamma isn’t technically an Issei, but because she’s born in the same generation of many immigrants—and because during her youth Japanese communities were largely segregated—she is closer to them in character than to second-generation Japanese-Americans like Jeanne.
Mama meets Papa at a wholesale market where her parents are selling produce and Papa is unloading vegetables; she is seventeen, and he is a dapper twenty-five-year-old. Mama’s parents dislike him because he lives a “fast” life and often borrows money. Mama sometimes says that Papa asked her to borrow money from Granny. Granny gave Mama a five-dollar bill, which was all she had; but when Mama gave it to Papa, he stalked furiously into the kitchen, threw the money in the fire, and said, “if that’s all you’ve got, I’d rather have nothing!”
The stories of Papa’s youth don’t cast him as especially responsible or even likable. However, in Jeanne’s eyes Papa’s strong character and idealism matter more than likability. Paradoxically, these traits will provide emotional support to the family throughout internment even as they keep Papa from being as practical provider as Mama is.
Mama attempts to run away with Papa, but her brothers eventually find her, take her home, and lock her in her bedroom. However, Mama is so despairing that her brother Charlie takes pity on her and lets her out. She and Papa elope and move to Oregon, where Papa works in a restaurant and she finds a job as a dietician. Mama soon gives birth to Woody and has a child about every two years, all while moving around for Papa’s various jobs.
Mama’s ability to keep house and raise so many children in the midst of such uncertain circumstances is a testament to her strength of character, even if that character isn’t as dominant as Papa’s. In some ways, her early married life probably prepares her for the challenges of Manzanar.
Papa believes deeply in the importance of education and often brags that he attended law school, but he never actually finished university. Jeanne doesn’t know why he dropped out, but she surmises that because he was “absurdly proud” he couldn’t stomach the enormous prejudice he’d be facing if he pursued a professional career. On the other hand, Papa has a pattern of starting projects and leaving them unfinished. That’s why he goes through so many jobs: he’s a lumberjack, dentist, and farmer.
Papa’s approach to education directly contrasts with Jeanne’s. He rejects university altogether because it might expose him to racism; on the other hand, in high school Jeanne will endure cruel and tacit slights in the hope of gaining acceptance. As a young adult, Papa lacks the deep sense of shame and guilt that internment instills in Jeanne.
Eventually, Papa settles the family in northern California where he raises fruit, but when the Depression strikes he loses his land and has to work as a migrant laborer while supporting Mama and eight children. Just before Jeanne is born, he becomes a fisherman, doing well enough to buy his two boats and even make a down payment on a new car, two weeks before the Pearl Harbor bombing.
In some ways, Jeanne’s birth marks a new era of stability and even middle-class prosperity for the Wakatsukis. Given these circumstances, it’s ironic and tragic that she comes of age in Manzanar, at the nadir of the family fortunes.
Jeanne acknowledges that even without internment, Papa could have lost his business or wrecked a boat—being a fisherman is hardly without risk. However, Pearl Harbor “snipped off” the life he was building for his family in California.
While Papa’s life was always full of uncertainty, internment ends the sense of hopeful optimism he always maintained beforehand. The injustice of internment is much more crushing than economic hardship in prewar life.
For Jeanne, the prewar years are represented by Papa and Mama’s silver anniversary celebration in 1940: Papa wore a new suit and Mama an elegant dress. Jeanne always remembers them standing around the dining room table, which was piled with silver gifts brought by friends and family; a huge buffet was spread in the kitchen, and relatives and fishing buddies had congregated to celebrate. When it was time to carve the pig, Papa theatrically chopped off the head in two strokes, to everyone’s delight. After he finished carving, he imperiously told his children to bring plates and distribute food to the guests.
The silver wedding anniversary marks a high point of family togetherness, which contrasts with the dissolution that internment causes. Moreover, while Mama’s steadfast and practical character remains largely unchanged, Papa is a different person when he returns from Fort Lincoln. His confident brandishing of the knife contrasts with his air of vulnerability and dependence on his cane as an internee.
Father is “not a great man”—he’s never economically successful, he brags a lot, and he yells at his family. But he always maintains his “self-respect,” and he works well at whatever profession he undertakes. He does everything with “flourish,” and even his fellow inmates at Fort Lincoln remember him because he each morning he translated the English newspapers into Japanese, altering his voice and making the news into an oration.
As an adult, Jeanne is able to reconcile Papa’s character flaws with his ability to support and inspire those around him. However, a long time will pass before she reaches this state of equanimity and overcomes her feelings that Papa has failed her. Being able to compassionately analyze Papa’s character shows her own development.
At Fort Lincoln, Papa worked as an interviewer, helping the Justice Department interview other men who couldn’t speak English. He became addicted to the rice wine the men made in their barracks. Both his feet got frostbite, in an incident that he always refused to discuss.
Hardship at Fort Lincoln is even greater than at Manzanar. Moreover, because there are only men and not families among the internees there’s less impetus to maintain communal norms and more serious manifestations of despair, like Papa’s incipient alcoholism.